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THE Global Justice Movement Website
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Thursday, May 9, 2019

Evelyn Waugh on Vatican II

In the eyes of some, the Catholic Church prior to the Second Vatican Council was a cesspool of corrupt authoritarianism and abuse that insulted human dignity at the most fundamental level.  To take only one example, Monsignor George A. Kelly (1916-2004) quoted Malachi Brendan Martin (1921-1999) in his (Kelly’s) book, The Battle for the American Church (1979), giving a lengthy list of things in the Church that “do not work,” especially anything that made the Church Catholic or even religious. (Msgr. George A. Kelly, The Battle for the American Church. New York: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1979, 5-6.)

Félicité de Lamennais
Surprising only those unaware of the degree of infiltration of the New Things into the Church and their origin in the democratic religion of socialism of the early nineteenth century, Martin’s list could easily have been inspired by Félicité de Lamennais’s pamphlet, Les Paroles d’un Croyant (1834).  Martin’s vision of the Church of the Future (a term used by Orestes Brownson while a socialist and prior to his conversion to Catholicism) bore a striking resemblance to that of Henri de Saint-Simon in Le Nouveau Christianisme (1825).
To others, the institution before the Second Vatican Council represented the high water mark of Christianity in the United States and throughout the world.  It is viewed as something of a “Catholic moment,” with the Church set to lead all Christianity to what Pius XI had called “the Reign of Christ the King.”  This was the view Kelly presented in his book, the first part of which gives a glowing list of admittedly impressive statistics, which he repeated frequently to show the contrast before and after the Council.
Ralph McInerny
Ralph Michael McInerny (1929-2010) of the University of Notre Dame shared Kelly’s view of the pre-conciliar Church, referencing Kelly a number of times in his book, What Went Wrong with Vatican II (1998).  As McInerny said, “It would be very wrong to imagine that it was something broken and in need of repair.” (Ralph M. McInerny, What Went Wrong with Vatican II: The Catholic Crisis Explained.  Manchester, New Hampshire: Sophia Institute Press, 1998, 7-8.)
McInerny also cited “The American Epoch in the Catholic Church,” by Evelyn Waugh.  The essay first appeared in the September 19, 1949 issue of Life magazine. (Reprinted in Donat Gallagher, ed., The Essays, Articles and Reviews of Evelyn Waugh.  London: Penguin Books, 1983, 377-388.)
Shocking those who generally miss whatever point Waugh was making, the caustic satirist presented a very positive view of the Church in America halfway through the twentieth century.  It was not, however, the rosy picture presented by Kelly and McInerny decades after the fact.  McInerny himself seemed to miss the warnings Waugh gave, perhaps writing them off as an example of Waugh’s irascibility and curmudgeonly outlook.
Evelyn Waugh
If so, McInerny did both himself and Waugh a disservice.  In common with Pius IX and others, Waugh saw an affinity between the unique American character (as chronicled by Alexis de Tocqueville) and Catholicism.  Waugh seems to have appreciated that the form of liberal democracy developed in America was somehow different from that of either England or Europe.  The former was compatible with Catholic teaching while the latter are not.  As he said, “Catholics are the largest religious body in the United States, the richest [Waugh did not, of course, refer to material wealth] and in certain ways the most lively branch of the Catholic Church in the world.” (Ibid.,  379.)
Again startling many, Waugh credited the strength of the Catholic Church in America to separation of Church and State in a form that left determination of religious belief up to the individual.  Admittedly in practice even in the United States this has often developed into hostility against the Catholic Church and other faiths, but that was never the intent or meaning of America’s Founders.
In the final reckoning, at least at the time de Tocqueville wrote, the division of life into private and public aspects left individuals largely in control of their own destinies and restricted the State to a relatively minor role.  As Waugh commented, “The realm of ‘private life’ was large and inviolable.  And the division of Church and State is feasible only under those conditions.” (Ibid., 379-380.)
Another "Must Read," Bookworms
Nevertheless, Waugh saw a grave danger threatening the Church and the rest of civilization throughout the world as the role of the State continued to expand.  Having seen the direction Fabian socialism was taking Great Britain — which he would depict a few years later in his dystopian novella Love Among the Ruins: A Romance of the Near Future (1953) — he was alert to what the related New Deal could do to Catholicism in the United States.  As he noted,
As the State, whether it consist of the will of the majority or the power of a clique, usurps more and more of the individual’s “private life”, the more prominent become the discrepancies between the secular and the religious philosophies, for many things are convenient  to the ruler which are not healthy for the soul. (Ibid., 380.)
Merging organized religion into the State and the transformation of churches, temples, synagogues, and mosques into second rate government welfare agencies was the goal of Msgr. John A. Ryan and his supporters as well as that of the Fabians.  In the decade before the Second Vatican Council, however, the New Things had not yet managed to become rooted deep in the American psyche.
Waugh thought the greater danger to the Church was that European Catholics would adopt the superficial aspects of American culture he had lampooned in, e.g., The Loved One: An Anglo-American Tragedy (1948), and drift away from what remained on the continent of the practice of the faith.  He did not foresee that Americans would adopt the European liberal version of democracy, “the tragic fate of Europe,” (ibid.) and undermine their own Christianity.  As he concluded his essay,
Pope John XXIII
There is a purely American “way of life” led by every good American Christian that is point-for-point opposed to the publicized and largely fictitious “way of life” dreaded in Europe and Asia.  And that, by the grace of God, is the “way of life” that will prevail. (Ibid., 388.)
Given his insights, then, it is hardly wonderful that Waugh took a jaundiced view of the changes that accompanied the Second Vatican Council a decade later.  He has even been accused of being hostile to the aggiornamento of Pope John XXIII (Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, 1881-1963, elected 1958) and of questioning the reason for the Council in the first place.
As one example, the editor of a collection of Waugh’s essays and other short works broadly hinted that Waugh did not express his true feelings about either Pius XII (Eugenio Maria Giuseppe Giovanni Pacelli, 1876-1958, elected 1939) or John XXIII in the articles he wrote after their deaths.  This is a remarkable insinuation, given Waugh’s acerbic honesty. (Ibid., 493.)
Actually reading Waugh’s essays and letters on the popes and the Council reveals a different story.  Unless he was lying (a thought that occurs only to be dismissed as ludicrous), Waugh did not fall into common error.  He did not assume that John XXIII intended any fundamental or substantial change at all, or that His Holiness was casual or lax in matters of either doctrine or discipline. (Ibid., 618.)
The Spirit of Vatican II (86 Proof)
Waugh’s distaste was reserved for those who, in contravention of what he considered the true “Spirit of Vatican II,” insisted on changing outward forms.  He did not, contrary to editorial claims, equate aggiornamento with “Change,” (ibid., 493) and he died before “the Spirit of Vatican II” took on its current pejorative meaning.
In Waugh’s opinion (which turned out to be prophetic), changes in outward forms, while puerile and tasteless in many cases, did not affect anything doctrinal.  They could, however, lead the way to alterations in doctrine as well as discipline.
The John XXIII Waugh admired was not the figure of popular myth.  He was instead a true visionary, intent upon bringing the Church up to date without the sacrifice of the smallest particle of either Sacred Tradition or human custom.  As McInerny noted in agreement,
[A]nyone who takes the trouble to discover what kind of man John XXIII really was will find it difficult to recognize the media persona with which he was invested.  It is forgotten now that early in his papacy he issued a directive requiring Latin to be fully restored as the language of instruction in seminaries and pontifical institutions. (McInerny, What Went Wrong with Vatican II, op. cit., 7.)
Nor would Waugh have disagreed — which raises the question of why he thought John XXIII called the Council.  As Waugh remarked, “No one had petitioned for it.  No one had expected it.” (Waugh, Essays, Articles and Reviews, op. cit., 617-618.)